"It was just there: dolphin, dolphin, dolphin"
He convinced Sega about Ecco, now Ed Annunziata wants to convince you about The Big Blue.
"It's like déjà vu only 20 years later," begins Ed Annunziata, the Bronx-bred man responsible for Ecco the Dolphin. He's talking to me about the reaction to The Big Blue, his ambitious underwater opus that sunk on Kickstarter. Last time he got a reaction like that was from Sega in a board room all those years ago.
"I couldn't get anybody to give me the time of day on it," he says. "It was almost comedic. First of all, the sentence that I let you just finish - ['I've got this great idea, it's dolphins'] - I didn't even get to enjoy that, I didn't get past half-way through when I said 'dolphins'."
Everyone else pitched cyborg cops and guns and smart bombs - stuff the suits knew and understood - "and they all look at each other, nod, and go 'yeah, that'll work'." But he dared to be different, striking out with 'you're a naked dolphin and...", and they just couldn't get it, just like he thinks the world can't get The Big Blue now.
The Big Blue was to be a vast underwater world set a million years into the future, when humans were extinct and sea singers - dolphins, killer whales and whales - evolved as the leaders of the world. A super pod of dolphins formed, a million strong, and communicated thoughts through songs, like nerve impulses firing around a giant floating brain. This Earth Mind can think, calculate, and through dolphins gazing at the sky, work out that the moon is, uh oh, going to smash into the earth. "The planet Earth and all life on it will be destroyed. It is inevitable." And it's not exactly an everyday pitch.
The dolphins, the killer whales and the whales are the playable species, although the sea is populated by many, many more things, including vast leviathans, dangerous sea-dragons and gyreforms - a great, destructive, hungry sludge made up of microbes that found a way to use the billions of tonnes of swirling plastic rubbish in our oceans as part of their membranes. The Big Blue was to be an action adventure game with exploration, puzzles, quests, and even bits of the ocean to call your own.
It promised to be "strikingly beautiful" as well, with "the most beautiful water and lighting effects ever seen", "perfect and super realistic" animations, and a music engine that reacted to players as well as accompanied them. It was a project more than 10 people would have to work a year on to realise. But it didn't float.
"The right way to do it," Annunziata now knows, "is to say 'how about like this?' and then just shut up and don't explain anything - just show it. If I was a time traveller what I would do is take The Big Blue from the future, bring it back and have a 15-second video where I introduce myself and say 'hey take a look at this' and then just show it. And then it would get funded."
That's how Ed Annunziata changed Sega's mind about Ecco. "That's what I did back then," he echoes. "I somehow, through tenacity, was able to get a small amount of money, and I had a magical team, and we built a prototype in a kind of skunkworks fashion. And when I showed it there wasn't even a moment where they said 'hey yeah let's do this' - it just showed up on the product plans.
"It was just there: dolphin, dolphin, dolphin. Every time I saw the roadmap I saw my game there. There was no debate, no green-light official meeting - it was just there right after the prototype, and that was all it really took."
Ecco was a massive hit for Sega, particularly for Sega America, which never usually sold anything in Japan. He's got an unusual theory about why that is. "Somebody told me that since it came out in summer, and because it was super hot, that people in Japan really liked it because it was underwater and it kind of had a psychological cooling affect. So maybe it was a heatwave that gave it its power!"
Ecco was packed in with Mega Drive consoles, sold with the CDX, that weird old thing, and it shifted by the trawler load, millions of units worldwide. Ed Annunziata never got rich out of it - he was just an employee of Sega paid to make games - but he did get to make a lot of Ecco, so that's something. But Ecco belongs to Sega, and Ed Annunziata can't have it back. "I begged them, but it seems every interaction I have with them I just make them more mad [crabby?] at me!"
He's not bitter about the Kickstarter thing, although he did consider a rage-quit at one point, and he smiles at the memory. He's got a thick shell and he's held high powered jobs at Sega, at N-gage (he loved working at Nokia) and he's launched start-ups doing educational games, educational MMOs and now he has his own company Playchemy making iPad games - iPad really turned him on. He's been around, and he's not precious.
"I did a lousy job, my message was lousy, my rewards were lousy," he says of Kickstarter. The concepts were too broad, too flung like an artist's paintbrush at a huge white canvas in an incomprehensible way, which is his way, and he shrugs. Sure he should have done something smaller that people could digest, could play, could understand, and he regrets it. He puts it in European terms for me: "I'm like a little kid on the school yard kicking the soccer ball, and I'm playing with Arsenal and they're kicking my butt. I have to grow up and approach it better. So I f***ed up," he says, in that "so what" Bronx kind of way.
"I'm not discouraged at all," and he's really not. He's 50 now and he's been mulling over the evolution of Ecco the Dolphin for 15 years - 15 years!. There's "no way" he's giving up. "One way or another I gotta do this game," he declares, although now he realises that "sometimes you have to take baby steps before you can run".
Those baby steps are the Little Blue, a slice of the Big Blue that Annunziata will use to win you over to his cause. It sounds like he's going to fund it on Kickstarter, but for far less than the $665,000 he asked for Big Blue, and then he's going to release it for free so that everyone can play it. The only string attached will be a link through to The Big Blue Kickstarter, Mark 2.
I half considered talking to Ed Annunziata in the style of a dolphin for this interview, clicking like a Geiger counter and seeing what came back. I figured he must be doolally for them to hold onto an idea for a game for so long. He probably swims with them in the morning then has them over for tea, I inwardly scoffed. "No." Whoops, I misjudged that. "First of all, if I went and swam with dolphins, I wouldn't admit it! That embarrasses the hell outta me."
His love of dolphins comes from a love of the deep, which comes from a boy's love for the weird and wonderful things that live down there. "Growing up there's always National Geographic, like, look at this weird thing with the sharp teeth and the glowing bulb on its head and lives 300 miles below the surface. It's always so weird and so alien. Even a squid, when you look at it up close, like, 'What the heck is that?!'
"It's so weirdly alien that it, the ocean and the whole aquatic vibe, has a dual attraction for me: it has this really pretty, deliciously colourful, good looking, beautiful aesthetic; and then at the same time, everything there just wants to eat you, and everything is alien and scary, and also the deeper you go the darker it gets, and if you keep going it becomes so dark you can't see, and then you can keep going and there's stuff down there - god knows what's down there, the Kraken, the leviathans and the tube worms that live in methane ice - and it's like it gets weirder and weirder.
"So it has this 'I'm a boy, I love monsters and aliens' and that kind of stuff - it has that appeal. It's sort of the dichotomy between beauty and absolute terror."
Dolphins he picked because out of all the 100 million species - really?! - that live under the water, Flipper and his ilk are most like us. Well, he concedes, it's probably manatees, but they're a bit ugly - "they're not as cool". "A dolphin is like a person because they're about our size, they're smart like us, they talk like us. But then I quadruple the value of dolphins as a player character because of the way they move."
Back in the olden Ecco days it was all characters walking left and right along platforms, maybe jumping, maybe going down a ladder, maybe moving diagonally. The d-pad dictated. "But dolphins," he says, "move in a nice, smooth, sine wave," and there's no gravity underwater to stick them to platforms. Dolphins were analogue, and the "magical" moment was surging up to, and breaking, the surface, flying through gravity for as long as your charge would sustain you. That was what he built the Ecco prototype around to show Sega - and it worked.
The science of dolphins is of vital importance, too - the idea of echo-location and that dolphins can see with sound, and even interact with each other. That cemented the dolphins for Annunziata, but the science of the sea would root even deeper, sustaining his interest through Ecco game after Ecco game, even influencing his daughter's studies in marine biology - he tells me Ecco Jr. was made for her. He even recently read a scientific discovery about dolphins that revealed they could call each other by signature sounds - names. "That's... that's huge," he remarks, astounded. "Rubbing up against a dolphin in Hawaii for 50 bucks is nothing compared to the science of it."
If Ed Annunziata had his way, had unlimited resources - had $100 million and James Cameron, he jokes - he'd make The Big Blue Online, an idea he described on Kickstarter as "an aquatic version of [Eve Online]" - and that really stirred the hornet's nest. "I couldn't believe how much push-back I got from community," he says, "so I was like all right, forget that, forget the MMO, because ultimately that's the dream after I accomplish another dream - the ultimate, ultimate, ultimate."
He's surprised the idea seemed so alien. "It's shocking to me how obvious the idea is of there is an ocean and we could be creatures and live in the ocean together. You don't join a clan, you join a school or a pod." There wouldn't be any RPG mechanics like levelling and so on, but you could quest with friends, explore, interact. And what thrills Annunziata most is the idea that the world could become, in people's perceptions, real.
"If I have a million people in this ocean, it becomes real - it really is like a real place because so many people are focused on it. The whole quantum mechanics and Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that whole thing: what we acknowledge or observe or think about really becomes real.
"And I just love the idea of setting up an ocean, just like the real ocean, and then putting a spark of life into it and getting living things in it, and then let evolution take over; let me go and die, or retire, and let it live on. It's not practical, but with the internet stuff like that happens." It will with Minecraft, he reckons, a game that will outlive its creator Notch. "I love the idea of paralleling biology in a digital space and having lots of human minds contributing to that." Who wouldn't?
Just like I expected a dolphin petter, so too did I expect Ed Annunziata to be an eco-warrior lacing his games - his visions - with messages of nature preservation and of Mother Earth. I expected a sermon on how games ought to be more responsible and use their influence on young minds to implant environmentalist tendencies because oh the power that could have - it would be war half won, right? Whoops, turns out I was projecting, and while he does care about nature and pollution and all that stuff - of course he does - he's not that guy on Rainbow Warrior waving his beliefs. He doesn't want to, as he says, "wag my finger at anyone and say we pollute and we're destroying the environment". "All I want is to inspire us to see the bigger picture."
Yes, "We're making a mess and we're causing problems as a species, but the Earth will be here, life will adjust, life is strong and resilient and it will adapt and it will deal with us. We're just part of a bigger picture, we're not sitting on top of the food chain causing - we think we're more important than we really are."
The Big Blue starts with the extinction of humanity for precisely this reason. We didn't kill Earth, not that we didn't try our best. "In fact, in The Big Blue we made it stronger. Our f***ing around, our selfishness, had caused it to adjust to us, making it stronger."
Take whales, he says, pulling out one of his big concepts. If all the noisy motorboats and ocean liners and this, that and the other that humans put in the water weren't there, then there would be silence and whales could communicate globally. His theory is that we've held whales back from doing that for so long that when humans are all of a sudden extinct, "that has an elastic effect on them", and unburdened, the strength they'd accumulated while burdened, "propelled them forward".
"I love the idea that even though we're doing damage, the way biology works is that if you damage it, you keep damaging it, it gets smarter and it figures out a way to get stronger and deal with it.
"It really made me step back and see this whole huge machine that we're a part of and give me more of a perspective in nature and biology, and give me a little humility."
It's a poignant thing to say, because to me, Ed Annunziata is that whale, that creature held back and damaged by an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign. But he doesn't need pitying, he knows he needs to go away, get smarter, figure out a way to get stronger and deal with it. He's been there before, and he has humility, and he has a game idea - but let's hope it doesn't take a million years and the extinction of humans for the idea to be propelled forwards.